February 28, 2008

DESTINATION INNER SPACE (1966) - not on DVD, unsurprisingly

(1966, USA)

A futuristic underwater sealab is having problems with a UFO that's parked between them and a nearby deep ocean trench. As they investigate, they attract the unwanted attention of a dangerous creature who puts the scientists and crew in danger. No, it’s not The Abyss. It’s more like a wet rip of IT! The Terror From Beyond Space.

Wow, this was bad. The only real thing going for this monster movie is the monster. A wild and imaginative bug-eyed amphibian that would look comfortable in Mars Attacks! It looks great in photos. The unusual back of the costume is so big it presumably hides an aqualung cylinder - remember, The Creature from the Black Lagoon had no such luxury, and stuntman Ricou Browning had to hold his breath for every shot!

The alien underwater creature costume also capitalises on this movie being in COLOUR, with it sporting bright orange fins.

But the story and everything else has had far less effort lavished on it. The underwater models of the sealab are ridiculously small, and look exactly the size they are. The producers could at least have studied the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea a little closer, for tips.

Speaking of TV, this looks like an early TV movie, mostly a TV cast, TV-friendly aspect ratio, and tame on the violence...

The only faces I recognised were Wende Wagner, (one of the few interesting things in The Green Hornet TV show, besides Bruce Lee) and James Hong as a comedy chef. At least he’d seen the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea - why else would he have a parrot on his shoulder? I'm pretty sure he'd rather be remembered for his performance in Blade Runner.
I rewatched Destination Inner Space to remind myself what it was like, and to see the wonderful monster again. I’d seen it back in the seventies on TV - when monster movies were so rare, they became must-sees. But now it's only entertaining for the stupid logic, shaky science and ridiculous stereotypes.

It's not on DVD, which is unfair because there's a lot, lot worse out there.

February 24, 2008

APT. (2006) another haunted high-rise

(2006, South Korea)

Far scarier than Apartment 1303, far harder to see…

Having been disappointed by Apartment 1303, I thought I'd try again with Apt., also known as Apartment or 9.56...

Miss Oh moves into a new apartment but is unlucky enough to witness one of her neighbours commit suicide. She notices that the lights flicker in the apartments opposite hers every evening at 9.56 - the same time as when the suicide happened. When she reports these coincidences to the police, they regard her with cynicism and suspicion. As Oh contacts her neighbours to warn them, she gets dangerously closer to the truth…

While Apartment leans on Ring for ideas, there’s also large splashes of Hitchcock too, resulting in effective scares as well as an involving mystery. Miss Oh has a view of dozens of apartments facing hers, that recalls the setting of Rear Window, without plundering it for ideas.

The acting is anchored by So-young Ko, surrounded by a strong ensemble cast. The only exception is the twitchy long-black haired ghost, who doesn’t quite convince. Isn't there a school for this type of acting by now?

As with many South Korean films, there is as much emotional pain as there is physical, evoking sympathy from the suffering of those trapped in terrible situations.

It’s difficult not to compare this to Apartment 1303, but Apartment is far and away more effective, original and stylishly constructed. But while 1303’s director hasn’t made a decent horror film since Tomie, Apartment’s Byung-ki Ahn improves with every film he makes. He started off fairly badly with the popular Nightmare (Gawi), where there was plenty of bloodshed but little logic, but at least it got him attention. Phone was better, with some remarkable performances, then Bunshinsaba proved more frightening than Japanese films in the same vein.

Lastly, don’t be put off the name of the production company that precedes the film with a customary flashy intro sequence, the unfortunately named Toilet Pictures!

Apartment/Apt. seems to have gotten lost in a muddle of movies with similar plots and samey titles. This is a shame because it’s easily the best of the haunted high-rise genre. It has yet to be released in the UK or US, and in the east it’s mainly for sale in a pricey two-disc set.

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February 21, 2008

DVD release updates

Finally! Blood+ is getting released on DVD in the US. The 50 episode anime series from 2005 starts out with a first volume in March. Continuing Saya's story on from the spectacular short film Blood The Last Vampire (2000), this epic tale sees Saya travel the world to try and wipe out vampire creatures and their allies. The live-action version of Blood The Last Vampire, from Hong Kong, is due for release later in the year.
More about Blood+ here.

The vengeful little Hell Girl is finally being released on DVD in the UK, just as NEO magazine reports that series three of the anime is now in production in Japan. No news from anywhere of a DVD release for the live-action series though. Can't find the UK cover art, though.

Supernatural Thai slasher Ghost Game gets a UK DVD release on February 25th, ahead of the US.

The recent Chinese ghost story The Matrimony should have been out in January in the US from Tartan, though it's release appears to have been delayed.

This South Korean ghost train horror film was remade on a plane in the US under the same name. But the original Red Eye has now arrived on DVD as well.

The recent Japanese disaster movie remake, The Sinking of Japan, has also got a DVD release in the US, but under the title Doomsday...
See my coverage of The Sinking of Japan here.

Finally, Takashi Miike's fast-moving and funny superhero Zebraman arrives on DVD in the US, February 18th.

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February 20, 2008

THE EYE 2 (2004) a solid sequel from the Pang Brothers

(2004, Hong Kong/Thailand)

The Eye 2 has renewed my interest in the Pang Brothers. After really enjoying The Eye (2002), I cooled off after seeing their Bangkok Haunted and The Tesseract, both of which failed to grip my attention.

The Eye 2 succeeds as a well-conceived sequel, faithful to the premise of the original, without copying it. There’s a new set of characters and a whole new haunting.

Reversing the locations of the first film, the story starts in Bangkok as Joey (Shu Qi) tries some shopping therapy to get over a messy break-up. After her ex refuses her phone calls, she attempts suicide. Her near-death experience activates her ability to see ghosts…

As she returns to Hong Kong she discovers she’s not only pregnant, but haunted. When she's trapped in a hospital lift, a terrifying incident convinces her that a ghost is trying to kill her unborn baby.

This could be the worst film to watch if you’re expecting a new baby. Shu Qi gives a sustained and emotional performance, spending much of the story terrified that she’s going to lose her baby. It’s difficult not to sympathise with her enduring this gruelling ordeal, despite some revelations about her character.

The haunting scenes are imaginatively shot and cleverly conceived. Though I didn’t find as many scares as creepy as the first film, there are some powerful and grisly shocks. The only real mis-step in the story was when a rapist attacks her, the character looked more like a sitcom geek. The next scene didn’t work for me, as he appeared again covered in comedy bandages.

Considering that the Pang Brothers former careers were in grading (tweaking the colours of film for continuity and a stylised look) and editing, they avoided the trend for flashy editing and surreal grading.

Oxide and Danny Pang are currently in the US, directing a remake (is that called re-directing?) of Bangkok Dangerous, starring Nicolas Cage. Perhaps they found time to go see Jessica Alba in The Eye remake that's just been released.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to catch up on their Ab-Normal Beauty, Omen and Eye Infinity, the third of the original Eye films.

The Eye 2 is on DVD in the US and UK, though I watched the Hong Kong disc which has DTS sound and an alternative ending.

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February 16, 2008

PULGASARI (1985) - it came from North Korea!

(1985, North Korea)

Bought this on VideoCD hoping to see a lost giant monster classic, but on reflection it's better off lost. Hard to see a nice presentation of this, since it's from North Korea, and it only crept out of the country in 1998. Not hard to see why, and I'm a fan of 'men in rubber suits stomping on toy tanks' genre.

It's a crazy story set in Korea 1000 years ago, when an evil Emperor kept his people in place with an iron fist. Boo! Well, the downtrodden people pray for help and up pops baby Pulgasari, who just loves eating iron fists. In fact, the more iron it eats, the bigger it gets, until it towers over the Emperor's army and eats his guns. The downtrodden populus then have to figure out how to get rid of the monster…

This may sound more fun than it is. There's a long wait for the monster action to kick in, especially since the first monster is tiny (a mixture of glove puppet and man-in-suit in overscaled sets), then man-sized (man-in-suit in man-size sets), before turning gigantic (man-in-suit in tiny scale sets, Godzilla-style). The young monster is fairly childish, acting a lot like the Son of Godzilla (1967) - which cinematically, is not a good look.

Actually, the big-guy suit is very robust and detailed, and the models he stamps on are huge and well-made (thanks, apparently, to a Japanese FX team). But the action is uninteresting and there's a lack of interaction with the actors. When the monster isn't around, the human sets look low enough to be for TV, a lot like The Water Margin used to look. The wigs and fake facial hair look like TV standard as well, making it all very hard to take seriously.

Added to that, it's trying to portray land-owners and kings as bad people - a monster movie as communist propaganda, this is precisely the sort of film the McCarthy commission warned would happen!

The Thai VideoCD I watched was presented in an aspect ratio best descibed as '4x3 squashed'. It was dubbed cheaply into Thai, with the music & fx obliterated by any added Thai dialogue, with no attempt to mix it in.

Not much fun to be had, though there's a much more interesting story about the making of the film, and how Kim Jong-Il oversaw the kidnapping of a South Korean movie director, in order to make several films for him, including this one!
Here's a detailed account of the real-life story...

I talk about more Korean giant monsters, old and new, in this article here.

If you really want to sample Pulgasari's dubious delights, I recently discovered that the entire film, English subtitled, is on Google Video

There's also more Pulgasari facts and screengrabs here at Stomp Tokyo.

I can't find the VCD online anywhere, but Japan released it on DVD in 2004.

February 15, 2008

TAXI 4 (2007) Luc Besson's fast-moving comedy

(2007, France)

Luc Besson - Producer
Ever since The Big Blue in 1989, we used to track down every Luc Besson film out there. We were rewarded with a string of classics: La Femme Nikita, Leon (aka The Professional), the underwater travelogue Atlantis, The Fifth Element… But after The Messenger (1999), he stepped out of directing and into producing.

But Besson’s name in the credits kept leading us to entertaining films. More mainstream perhaps, and usually in French. A new gamut of Luc Besson movies that were less well known in the big wide world of English-speakers.

Many of them are a fusion of East/West action. In Wasabi (2001) and in The Transporter, a young woman from the Far East is teamed up with an older gun-toting action man. Wasabi was also interesting to me for being set in Japan. Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) cast Jet Li with Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins!

I thought Besson’s name would also guarantee cult status for the Taxi series, which started off in 1998 as an action/comedy heavy with jaw-dropping stunt-driving from the superb Remy Julienne troupe (still going strong since The Italian Job in 1968). Despite the sequels and the obligatory awful US remake, the Taxi films are still relatively unknown but easily accessible off-beat entertainment.

Taxi 4
...or more accurately T4xi, (but just try asking for it by name), is the latest. Although it starts off with a football hook, sport isn’t central to the plot. The familiar faces are back, with the local police from the French Riviera put in charge of a scheming and dangerous crimelord. As usual it takes a local taxi driver to save the police from themselves.

This is quite a break from the Taxi formula, with far less complex auto action. Taxi’s tricks are demoted to just high-speed driving and weaving through traffic. The accent here is on comedy, specifically aiming for an audience that enjoys jokes about policemen smoking grass, a base-thumping soundtrack, and stereotyped baddies that you could spot from a satellite.

But there’s also intricate physical comedy, sharp dialogue, and a faithful continuation of the character storylines from movies 1 2 and 3. The humour is easily accessible, despite numerous jokes about different regions of France, and beaucoup de Belgian-bashing. There’s also far more screentime for the demented Inspector Gibert, than Daniel the taxi driver, again steering the film away from the usual formula. But it’s still a strong entry, the third to be directed by GĂ©rard Krawczyk.

The Marseilles Police Force must squirm as they hand out filming permits to the crew, only to see themselves portrayed onscreen as uniformly dimmer than Inspector Clouseau (which reminds me that Jean Reno is doing Pink Panther 2, ooch!)

With minimal car carnage, the climax is instead a handsomely mounted pastiche of Pacino’s Scarface. So relax, lower your expectations of a car chase finale, and you’ll enjoy Taxi 4 all the more.

At the moment you have to search around for Taxi 4 with English subtitles. I found a no-frills release from Thailand, in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The subtitles miss out a few lines of dialogue, but they are clear and well-translated. Canada is also a good place to look. Meanwhile Taxi, Taxi 2 and Taxi 3 are all out on DVD in the UK.

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February 14, 2008

APARTMENT 1303 (2007) - don't go in...

(2007, Japan)

A flat-warming party in a seafront apartment block goes horribly wrong as the hostess starts eating dog food, then dives out the window to her death. As her sister investigates, she discovers that the apartment has very creepy neighbours, and a curse. Something the estate agent failed to mention...

The mystery here is not why young women keep hurling themselves off the balcony of apartment 1303, but how director Ataru Oikawa went so wrong after
Tomie (1998). It’s starting to stick out from his filmography as his only good film, and not many people agree on even that. His recent sequels Tomie: Revenge and Tomie: Beginning were far from good.

On the plus side, the acting is strong, and I was pleased to see Eriko Hatsune again, the star of Uzumaki. Other actors convincingly convey uncontrollable grief and impending madness.

At the heart of the story, the tragedy flashback is dramatic enough. But we've seen the resulting haunting too many times before, and done far better.

Ten years down the line, it’s time to stop recycling Ring and Ju-On. Especially when the scares don't work. There’s a couple of good ones, but 2 out of 20 isn’t an acceptable score.

The ghostly make-up looks like make-up. The sets look like sets. The rubber corpse looks like rubber. The long black hair effects are overused and, yawn, reminiscent of the vine-attack from The Evil Dead. There’s even a scene straight out of Carrie.

"A Tale of a Haunted House"...well no, it's just an apartment

The fatal falls aren’t gory or shocking, with some unconvincing green-screen work. I thought that it was compulsory that directors of Japanese horror learnt to shoot suicide falls effectively - it’s a given that it'll be needed sooner or later.

I can’t say I was bored by it, but I won’t be returning to Apartment 1303. It's out on DVD in the UK and US.

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February 09, 2008

YO-YO GIRL COP (2006) the return of Sukeban Deka

(2006, Japan,
Sukeban Deka: Code Name - Asamiya Saki)

Watching the mad eighties TV show Sukeban Deka (delinquent schoolgirl cop) has been a continuing pleasure for me. It delivers straight-faced schoolgirl action heroics week after week, for over 100 episodes. The show takes imaginative editing and huge leaps of logic to keep rough (yo-yo) justice as the only answer to violent school crime. For me, the highpoint of the phenomenon was the first feature film - as Saki Asamiya takes down a combat helicopter with her police-issue steel yoyo.

20 years later and the character has been revived by Kenta Fukasaku who directed the hugely disappointing Battle Royale II.

The years haven't softened the undercover methods of the police. To uncover an epidemic of school suicides, they need a teen agent to snoop around for them, despite the danger. Their solution is to offer a deal to a violent delinquent. If she works for them, they will get her mother released from a US prison. Working undercover, her only weapon looks like a yo-yo, but it’s chain-linked and made of steel – handled properly it could be deadly. Hidden inside it is a police badge, to prove to the authorities who she’s working for.

The story starts off controversially with a schoolgirl suicide-bombing the famous Shibuya crosswalk. There's a great yoyo-themed title sequence which keeps up the momentum until we get to Saki's deal. There's one of these not-quite-English conversations where Japanese actors try to speak American, as Saki is extradited from the US. Compounding the awkwardness of the scene, is twitchy camerawork and a fast-cutting style that suits the action scenes, but is simply distracting here.

Saki’s police contact is played by Takashi Miike favourite Riki Takeuchi, whose OTT acting style lacks the subtlety of William Shatner, and doesn't match the tone of any other actor in the movie. His bizarre and hammy presence also got Battle Royale II off to a bad start. Here he's also faking a Stallone drooping lip and a theatrical limp that’s less convincing than a pantomime pirate. Everything works better when he's not around, where the lead, Aya Matsuura, is playing the role straight, earnest and gritty.

The bombing mystery centres on a suicide website, all downbeat stuff that's not nearly as far-fetched as the silly yo-yo premise demands. The usual meandering detective work and alliances with bullied students is barely punctuated with a sparsity of action, where fights end as soon as they’ve started.

The important debut of the killer yo-yo has an elaborate set-up, but is written off for a cheap gag at Saki's expense. The director obviously hasn't decided whether to send it all up or make it look good. Of course the yo-yo action is now mostly computer-generated.

Saki has to deal with ‘the popular girl’ Reika, played by Rika Ishikawa, who can obviously handle a yo-yo expertly, and shows up Aya by continually doing yo-yo tricks in all their scenes.

For fans, there’s a fitting cameo from Yuki Saito, the first ever actress to play the Sukeban Deka back in 1985. It would have been great to see her in action alongside Aya.

After not nearly enough yo-yo action, even compared to a typical TV episode, there's an overlong multiple climax, by which time action fans may have given up. I really wanted this to be better, to turn more people onto the original TV show.

Yo-Yo Girl Cop, and both the eighties movies, are available in the USA on subtitled DVDs. The extras include some interesting behind the scenes footage, which is also translated.

Do you want to know more?

Sukeban Deka - the TV series (1985).

Finally, I couldn't resist getting my own steel yo-yo. It's pretty lethal but only extends about two feet. If you tried to hit anyone with it they could punch you back! There's a less dangerous plastic version included, and a small replica of Saki's iron mask (from series 2). But no, I don't use it as part of a cosplay outfit...

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February 07, 2008


As the visitor count clocks up another 10,000, I'd like to say thank you all for dropping by. Black Hole DVD Reviews has been rolling for two and a half years, and now gets 1,500 visits per week.

My remit has changed very little. I'm sticking to spoiler-free reviews, only giving up as much as is necessary to try and tempt you.

There's no ads. I'm keeping this no-strings-attached. The stores that I mention are to direct you to those harder-to-find DVDs.

Every week, I revise and update a past review to appear on Evil Dread in my Asian Macabre column. I also parallel post a few articles on 24framespersecond. It's just for fun, but it means many more could get to read my stuff.

Especially important to me in the Black Hole is the 'Not On DVD' section. I hope that this eventually dwindles as the titles become available, somewhere, soon. I still have a long list to bring to your attention.

There are better films out there, than what you're offered in local cinemas or on TV.

Half the stuff I watch isn't in English. If people miss out on marvellous movies because they 'don't like subtitles', it's their loss.

I don't care if a movie is old, black and white, silent, subtitled, dubbed, or on VHS. If it tells a good story, offers something unique, uses imagination, shows me something new, takes me somewhere I've never seen before, teaches me, challenges me... then I'll watch it...

...especially if it has zombies, gratuitous car chases or helicopters in it. Or giant monsters. Or ghosts. Or Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Divine, William Shatner, or Chiaki Kuriyama.

What I'm trying to say is, thank you for reading.

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DEAD DAUGHTERS (2007) stylised supernatural Russian horror


(2007, Russia, Myortvye docheri)

PAL Russian DVD (Vox Video)

(This review also appears on 24framespersecond...)

Dead Daughters is a recent horror film that’s part of the push to get Russia back into the international market (like Day Watch and Apocalypse Code). That’s not to say that it has surrendered any of its Russian-ness, but been too obviously influenced by Japanese and US horror. Even so, surprise, surprise, the remake rights have already been bought in the US.

Naturally, the template seems to be Ring, with a simple set of supernatural rules, a short deadline, and scary girls with long black hair…

Vera is waiting in her car when a dishevelled stranger jumps in and threatens to hurt her if she doesn’t drive off immediately. He says that he’s being chased by the ghosts of three murdered children who will kill him if he does anything bad. Vera listens to his story but wisely takes the opportunity to dump him. She later tells five friends about the madman’s ghost story, not realising that he died soon after, and the dead daughters are now watching her every move…

Watching Dead Daughters was quite an experience, but eventually a frustrating one. I was initially seduced by the twitchy camerawork and heavily distorted colours, into a bleak nightmarish mood where vengeful ghosts could actually victimise the living. But I was hungry for the story to progress, and didn’t realise that the two-hour movie wasn’t going to deliver any major thrills until near the end.

The simple premise lost momentum for a long while, as a journalist tries to unravel the facts. But his search, and the experiences of ‘the five’, don’t bear fruit in the loooong second act. I later wandered why the premise had been set up at the start not once, but twice – both with disappointing pay-offs. Mood is important, but it felt like hours before the horror kicked in.

The simple rules laid down (eventually) are very clear, but the narrative is hazy as to how each character does something ‘bad’ enough to become a target, or why they were first chosen. All indicators that the producers want horror movie profits, but aren't taking the genre seriously enough to stick to it's own logic.

When the five agree that they will take the curse seriously, there may have been some comedy moments as they avoid doing anything that could at all be considered bad. Like a Jim Carrey movie, they are forced to tell the truth, be nice to colleagues at work, stop smoking… These are either supposed to be funny and aren’t, or supposed to be suspenseful but aren’t.

Besides the similar plot structure, there are direct references to Ring in the form of in-jokes. Ten years on, this is a little late considering there have also been four Scary Movies to do the job better. Samara even gets a name check, (the US version of Sadako) lumped in with some anime references. They must have watched both films.

I’d really rather see some local homegrown ideas, than such derivative stuff. What draws me to Thai and Japanese fantasy is to hear about their legends and beliefs. Fresh meat for horror fans sick of seeing familiar themes rehashed. Dead Daughters even takes it’s climax directly from the first sequel of a well-known US franchise…

I didn’t mind that the entire movie was shot with a constantly darting camera, it’s very well done. Though the ‘crushed’ details of many interior scenes, reduce much of the screen to blackness. This is an electronic process that takes place after the cinematography has wrapped, sometimes even after the editing has finished. We therefore don’t get to see what the camera or the editor saw, because the colours and brightness have been so drastically altered. I was sensing that I couldn’t see all the important information in the frame, to the point that I had no idea how two of the murders took place! The stylised look is great, but I’d also like to see what’s going on…

The unsettling, shifting camera sometimes means that we are sharing what the dead daughters are watching. I later realised that I’d recently seen several horrors taking a very similar stylistic approach. Shrooms was jerkily but beautifully shot, with extremely unnatural colours. So was
Them, though both those were shot on video, while Dead Daughters benefits from expertly filmed cinematography. Nightmare Detective is still my pick of the wobble-cam bunch, because Tsukamoto is years ahead of the pack as an expert in jerky camera technique and fast-cutting, while still communicating narrative.

Unlike Night and Day Watch, the cast is almost completely made up of trendy twenty-somethings, a similar approach to US horror. It’s difficult to learn about modern Russia through such a distorting lens as this film, but there seemed to be satire and, if I read it right, comedy at the expense of the characters. All good-looking youngsters, with new capitalist jobs, like I.T., logo design, rock star, estate agent… They were all into fervent consumerism, laptops, grungy designer clothes... Indeed, we first see them surrounded by a room ridiculously full of litter from an evening in.

Where shops selling consumer goods in Soviet Russia were once only open to tourists, new Russia now has more of a disposable consumer society. Like the new Thai slasher movies, these mean nouveau riche kids are lined up to die bloody and painful deaths. Is that because the characters appeal to the audience, or are they being killed to appease the have-nots?

Attempts at broader comedy sabotage the well built-up, gloomy mood. There’s a taut scene where one of 'the cursed' visits a psychic. But because she is hypnotised by using the twirling flail of a battery-driven kung-fu hamster, it’s very hard to take seriously.

The swirling, layered soundscape is at its strongest using ethereal guitarwork, reminding me of Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s score to Mysterious Skin. But this is intersperesed with some downright awful cheap stock ‘horror’ music phrases that fight the modern mood onscreen.

Dead Daughters is almost very good – its strengths outweigh the many weaknesses. The atmosphere and approach are memorable, and I could probably appreciate the dark humour better on a second viewing. But it could certainly lose a few pounds around the middle.

The Russian DVD has English subtitles, but these are sometimes badly timed – there is often a long subtitle to cover the next three lines of dialogue spoken, rather than one each. There are some spelling mistakes and a few minor mistranslations – but nothing damaging. The picture is well-presented in 2.35 anamorphic letterbox, and there’s a choice of Russian audio mixes – stereo, 5.1 and DTS. There are also some extended behind-the-scenes as extras, but these aren’t subtitled. The DVD is available from
Diabolik and DVDigitALL. Perhaps if the remake goes ahead, a US release will follow.

English language website is still online film...

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